When I'm Sixty-Four: The Plot against Pensions and the Plan to Save Them

By Teresa Ghilarducci | Go to book overview

Chapter 9

The American Labor Movement:
Advocating Retirement and Obtaining Pensions

Pensions did not spring forth from the brains of employers as Athena sprung forth from Zeus's head (but that was only because Prometheus took a rock and split open Zeus's head to relieve him of his headache!). Employers did not start out providing pensions to their rank-and-file employees until unions in a Promethean move—civilizing humankind by taking privileges once reserved by the gods—demanded that all working persons were entitled to a pension shortly after World War I. Pensions were, up to that point, a benefit reserved for management.

The American labor movement promotes employment-based pension plans and continues to advocate for improvements in Social Security. One challenge for organized labor is to create the conditions for firms to manage their responsibilities for pensions in an orderly way as their defined benefit plans and retiree health care plans mature and become more expensive.

Pensions are not merely a source of money for pills, poker, and cable TV every month. A second challenge for the labor movement is to manage the dual life of a pension fund. Pension funds are a source of pension income, and a source of financial power for the entities that control them. The American labor movement, starting in the 1920s, recognized the financial impact pension funds would have on the economy and demanded a role in managing pension investments. Labor union goals for managing money can be viewed from both offensive and defensive perspectives: offensive in the sense that unions use their position as representing the worker-investor to advance constructive actions to further their union goals; defensive, because unions aim to influence pension investments in order to defend their interests. At the very least, organized labor wants to ensure that its victories at the collective bargaining table and in government policy are not undone

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